John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

State Park in Key Largo & Tavernier

John Pennekamp has the singular distinction of being the first underwater park in the USA. There’s 170 acres of dry parkland here and over 48,000 acres (75 sq miles) of wet: the vast majority of the protected area is the ocean. Before you get out in that water, be sure to take in some pleasant beaches and stroll over the nature trails.

The Mangrove Trail is a good boardwalk introduction to this oft-maligned, ecologically awesome species (the trees, often submerged in water, breathe via long roots that act as snorkels – neat). Stick around for nightly campfire programs and ranger discussions.

The visitor center is well run and informative and has a small saltwater aquarium and nature films that give a glimpse of what’s under those waters. To really get beneath the surface, you should take a 2½-hour glass-bottom boat tour (adult/child $24/17). You'll be brought out in a safe, modern 38ft catamaran from which you’ll get a chance to see filigreed flaps of soft coral, technicolor schools of fish, dangerous-looking barracuda and perhaps massive, yet ballerina-graceful, sea turtles. Besides the swirl of natural coral life, interested divers can catch a glimpse of the Christ of the Abyss, an 8.5ft, 4000lb bronze sculpture of Jesus – a copy of a similar sculpture off the coast of Genoa, Italy, in the Mediterranean Sea.

If you want to go even deeper, try straight-up snorkeling trips (adult/child $30/25) or diving excursions (six-person charter $500, plus equipment rental). DIY-ers may want to take out a canoe ($20 per hour), kayak (from $12/30 per hour/half day) or stand-up paddleboard (from $25/40 per hour/half day) to journey through a 3-mile network of trails. Phone for boat-rental information.

To learn more about the reef in this area, go to www.southeastfloridareefs.net.

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